12 Angry Men Review
The timing of Criterion’s UK release this month of 1957’s superb just-outside-a-courtroom drama 12 Angry Men could almost be considered cheeky. Director Sidney Lumet’s extraordinary debut tackles how prejudice can cloud judgement and while Brexit and President Trump still dominate headlines, the film’s message of compassion seems never more relevant. It must have been such 60 years ago too so it seems human nature has not changed. And as a technical achievement it remains unsurpassed, despite a deceptively simple setup.
With only Alfred Hitchcock’s The Paradine Case (1947) standing out before it, 12 Angry Men was one of the earliest courtroom dramas and yet is unlike any that would follow; 1959’s Anatomy of Murder would set that template. Here, there is only the briefest glimpses of a judge or a defendant and none of grandstanding lawyers. This is about the Jury and nothing but the Jury as they deliberate the verdict, which is a portion of the popular genre usually given short shrift off-screen (though it was featured to entertaining effect just last year in TV series, The People v. O. J. Simpson: American Crime Story).
At the centre of the film is the screenplay by Reginald Rose, adapted from his own 1954 teleplay, the original broadcast of which is included on this release. On one of the other extra features, Ron Simon explains that after serving as a Juror himself, Rose wanted to explore the process onscreen and question the notion of opinion; is it formed by a mob or by an individual? Whatever would he have made of social networking on the Internet! We live in a time where expert or researched opinions are treated with suspicion, even marginalised, simply because they don't align with an individual's view of the world. Reginald Rose clearly saw the same problem all those years ago, because 12 Angry Men tackles that head on by forcing each of the jurors to support their decision. To just step back and think.
This is a story about the kind of detail that some of even the best legal dramas drift past. We know nothing of the case that precedes the plot of 12 Angry Men, except for that which the jurors discuss. It transpires a young man is accused of murdering his father and the evidence is so compelling that his guilt is obvious. The jurors all wish to move on quickly, get out of the claustrophobic room, submit their judgement, condemn the boy to his deserved death and go home. Henry Fonda, as Juror #8, isn’t so easily convinced. To the annoyance of the other 11 men, he wants to discuss the defendant’s fate.
Perhaps it should have been called 11 Angry Men plus Henry Fonda, because he is so calm and objective compared to the more emotional or lazy reactions of the others. Over the course of the film he steadily picks holes in the evidence and the various prejudices that the others harbour are brought to light. The tension is almost unbearable and yet Juror #8 barely flinches. Henry Fonda was a gentleman actor in the mould of James Stewart or Gregory Peck, effortlessly exuding dignity so much that it informs the character. It makes for an intriguing companion piece to The Ox Bow Incident in which he played a more dubious character, wrestling with his morals. Only once did he play a real villain of note (Frank in Once Upon a Time in the West) and considering he produced the film with Reginald Rose, it's a safe bet Juror #8 is as close to the real Henry Fonda as we ever saw onscreen. This is his Atticus Finch, several years before Peck's actual one.
Of the remaining cast, Joseph Sweeney and George Voskovec were the only ones also in the original live TV broadcast. You’ll recognise the rest; reliable character actors one and all, like Martin Balsam, Jack Klugman, and Jack Warden, yet almost all were newcomers at this point, except for Lee J. Cobb. It’s credit to Rose’s witty and sophisticated screenplay that all the cast gel so perfectly. It’s beautifully played and enthralling despite it simply being 12 blokes in a stuffy little room having a chat.
Watching the TV version makes for a fascinating comparison when you consider that it was live and filmed in sequence. The camerawork is extraordinary and ambitious; an effort to make it more than just a filmed play and give this new TV thing a sense of prestige. With the benefit of more time and rehearsal, Sidney Lumet’s version is superlative. The limited set and the ostensibly simple plot contrarily mean it had to be perfect. It isn’t the kind of film that could be rescued in an edit with no room for loose editing and cover shots. As the extra features briefly explore, the attention to continuity was unprecedented.
12 Angry Men is a masterpiece of cinema and not just a technical one. That’s the kind of standard you can reliably expect from Sidney Lumet and yet, as with most of his cast, this was his first feature. Just like Fonda, he was another of cinema’s gentlemen and a quiet genius. His last film was the underrated Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, in which he demonstrated a sorely missed old fashioned grasp of melodrama. 12 Angry Men wasn’t his only foray into legal drama either. He directed The Verdict in 1982 featuring Jack Warden and starring Paul Newman in, arguably, his finest role.
Lumet had an unwavering focus on individuals in his films and a thirst for social justice. The themes in 12 Angry Men are explored further in his landmark Serpico with Al Pacino, but it is the former that may prove to be his most enduring and relevant work. As with Harper Lee’s story To Kill A Mockingbird, Reginald Rose’s screenplay is timeless and the parallels with modern society painfully accurate. “I’m entitled to my opinion!”, says Cobb as the particularly angry Juror #3. Isn’t that the tag-line for these politically turbulent times, sixty years on?
Grain is good. In any notable HD transfer from film, you will see grain and it should be embraced. That said, it’s a distraction here. Perhaps it has been over-sharpened to pull up the detail, which is astonishingly good. The close-ups and sweat on various Juror brows, for example, but in wider shots the noise level is too high. It’s a difficult balance to achieve and still preferable to all previous versions, given there are no visible artifacts or damage. And the lighting is easy to take for granted, but delicately shifts as time goes on and it’s presented beautifully here. Still, you will notice that grain.
Audio is clean and precise. As with much else in the film, the detail in the sound design is far better than you might expect it would need to be. The atmosphere of rain outside the room is wonderful.
TV Version (1954) - 51m, with introduction by Ron Simon - 14m
It’s great being able to see the original version of the story and the story of how it came to be on TV at all is fascinating. The dialogue isn’t as polished as in the film and it’s paced a little faster and more routinely, but the camera work is incredible considering it was done live with commercial breaks.
In his introduction, Ron Simon demonstrates how important TV was in 1950s. It adds a frisson to the old argument of how cinema had to reinvent itself to stay ahead of TV; Westinghouse Studio One was screened on the same nights as I Love Lucy, so it just shows how sophisticated and varied TV was from even the early days. It’s been downhill ever since!
12 Angry Men: from TV to the Big Screen - 25:33
Vance Kepley, film scholar, is a brilliant host for this concisely delivered retrospective, starting with the ambition of the teleplay and the challenges it set for itself. It’s rich in detail, including details on lenses, shot choice and pacing, featuring lots of set pictures from both versions.
Sidney Lumet - 22:58
This is a clever mega-mix of interview clips with Sidney Lumet, forming one conversational thread. A sort of auto-biography he never knew he made! With lots of clips and anecdotes, it demonstrates what a brilliant man Lumet was.
Reflections on Sidney Lumet - 09:28
Walter Bernstein was a friend and collaborator of Sidney Lumet. He speaks of when Lumet helped him after he was blacklisted by the House of Un-American Activities (another reminder of the cost that a political climate based on hate and fear can have).
On Reginald Rose - 14:59
Ron Simon explores Rose’s career; a quiet man, but so important to broadcast TV, eventually working on renowned legal show The Defenders.
Tragedy in a Temporary Town - 50m
Another teleplay by Reginald Rose and directed by Sidney Lumet in 1956. It’s dated of course, but fun. Features Lloyd Bridges in an early role.
On Boris Kauffman - 38:21
Much of the magic in 12 Angry Men is down to the stunning photography by Boris Kauffman, one of the all-time great cinematographers that had worked with Sergei Eisenstein, again with Sidney Lumet on the The Pawnbroker and the distinctive, wonderful work with Elia Kazan for On The Waterfront. John Bailey is a great host and explains detail of shot dissection, composition and lighting from several of Kauffman’s films, not just 12 Angry Men.
Trailer - 2m
“12 men with the smell of violent death in their nostrils!” The old trailers never get boring!